Walker, Bettinson, and Katz
THE CANVAS – MAY 2008
By Carl Little
Change and Light in Maine
John Walker: Landscapes and Bingo
John Walker has been painting the Maine coast for the past dozen or so years, drawn to the light and the changing character of the ironbound shoreline—reminiscent, perhaps, of the coast of England, his native country. A bay near his house in Walpole has been of particular interest to him.
Walker has presented this roughhewn stretch of coast in both large and small paintings, each covered with a profusion of brushstrokes. As Katy Kline, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, has noted, these landscapes are “unsentimental, messy,” and do not resemble “familiar and conventional representations of the beloved Maine coastline.”
Created in the summer of 2005, Walker’s Seal Point Series consists of several hundred landscapes painted on antique bingo cards that the artist discovered in his studio. Walker thrives in the restricted format (each card measures around seven by five inches), meeting the challenge with expressive fervor.
In Seal Point #24, 2005, the lineaments of the view—a dark ledge, a touch of sea, an island, an open sky—are laid in with a kind of intuitive zeal, with bits of the printed grid, numbers, and lettering showing through.
“It’s one spot,” Walker says about Seal Point, “and I’m painting it, hopefully, with the idea that I will be, eventually, the world’s greatest expert of that spot.” And then he quotes Winston Churchill: “Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end…of the day.” The statesman’s words apply in equal measure to Walker and his comrades-in-art, Bettinson and Katz.
Brenda Bettinson’s Beautiful Backhoe
In 1966, the year British-born painter Brenda Bettinson became an American citizen and won a Gold Medal from the National Arts Club in New York City, she purchased property on Barter’s Island near Boothbay Harbor. She eventually built a cottage and later, in 1989, became a year-round Mainer. Over time, the island landscape subsumed her earlier figural and neo-expressionist tendencies as she found herself caught up in what she has called the “unique light and ambiance” of the Maine coast.
Today, Bettinson’s paintings relate almost entirely to her surroundings near the edge of Sheepscot Bay: the elements of a working waterfront, the pure geometry of a local church, a bell buoy atilt on the water. She has also rendered flowers, plants, and trees—tiger lily, foxglove, rhododendron, elderberry.
Notable among Bettinson’s subject matter is heavy machinery. In a statement for a show at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 2002, she explained the allure: “The beauty of a backhoe results from the functional forms of its parts.” Her studies of earth-moving machinery reflect her fascination with the equipment, while also acknowledging their impact on the landscape.
In Contest, 2002, parts of an earthmover are juxtaposed with comfrey, a wild plant with medicinal features. The dramatic placement of the plant in the painting—crushed, as it were, between the arms of the backhoe—implies a losing battle. Yet the canvas is not simply a statement about encroaching development. Bettinson paints the equipment with the same admiring detail that she does the bell-like flowers. As an artist, she plays no favorites.
Alex Katz’s Harbor Lights
At Skowhegan [School of Painting and Sculpture],” Alex Katz once said, “I tried plein air painting and found my subject matter and a reason to devote my life to painting.” Katz chose the fledgling school situated in the woods of Maine over the summer art program at Yale University.
That fateful choice took place in 1949. A few years later, the painter and several fellow artists purchased a farmhouse on Slab City Road in Lincolnville, near the coast. He started painting Maine, employing his signature flat, stage-set style, which eventually garnered him international fame.
On the occasion of the exhibition Alex Katz in Maine at the Farnsworth Art Museum in 2005, chief curator Suzette Lane McAvoy observed that the painter’s perspective on his adopted state was not “the tourist view of crashing surf and lighthouses,” but rather “more intimate and more universal.”
On the intimate side, Katz often depicts family and friends in local Maine settings: in the yard playing Frisbee, strolling across the Islesboro ferry slip. As for universal, the painter portrays a range of iconic images, from a birchbark canoe to black-eyed Susans in a meadow.
Lincolnville Harbor, 2004, is a nocturne of great simplicity. Two modest waterfront structures, their interiors lit up, appear to float at the center of the canvas. The dark water reflects a few rippled lines of light, and spots of yellow speckle the black land like fireflies.
The painting could be a sailor’s view from a mooring, and it is romantic enough even without the moon or stars. We can almost hear voices in the distance or a radio tuned to a local country station. Once again, Katz has used a few props to set an enchanting stage.